Before the first bucket of mud is removed and the first limestone cropping is blasted away, many questions remain about plans to deepen the St. Johns River so the port can handle bigger cargo ships.
Do the economic benefits outweigh the environmental damage? Are the robust economic projections accurate or the wishful thinking of business and political leaders? Will Jacksonville become the port of choice of Panama Canal shippers, or will they choose from competing East Coast ports?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft report, which outlines plans to deepen the shipping channel to 47 feet, has left some city and port leaders with sticker shock. It estimates the project will cost about $732.8 million, with a local cost of $383.5 million.
"We are going to bear a huge, huge cost," said Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, of the cost and environmental impacts of a 13-mile project from the mouth of the St. Johns to the port facilities near Downtown Jacksonville.
Rinaman's organization is keeping a close eye on the potential environmental costs and possible ways to mitigate the damage caused by the removal of tons and tons of material to make the river channel seven feet deeper.
"My job is to protect the St. Johns River," said Rinaman, who is awaiting the results of dozens of reports, including one which will examine the dredging impacts on hundreds of St. Johns tributaries, including 79 in Duval County alone.
She and others face a July 31 deadline for commenting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers draft report. The Corps' final report is due next spring.
Port officials, city leaders and chamber leaders claim the primary reason for the work is economic development and jobs. The port now claims it is currently responsible for 65,000 jobs and $19 billion annually in economic impact, but some say those figures are inflated.
A consultant for the port, Martin Associates of Lancaster, Pa., issued a report in April which said the dredging would have an economic impact of 14,000 additional jobs by 2035, $1 billion per year in new wages, and $900 million a year in direct business revenue. It would also increase tax revenue by $786.9 million over 35 years.
Jacksonville Maritime lawyer George Gabel, founder of the North Florida Logistics Advisory Group and JAX Chamber Business Leader of the Decade, used those figures in a June speech to the Jacksonville Rotary Club.
Gabel believes the city should issue bonds to pay for the dredging, which would be completed by 2021 at the earliest.
City Councilman John Crescimbeni, in an email, questioned use of bond money to pay for what he called staggering costs.
"The proceeds from bonds are not ‘magic money.' Those bonds have to be repaid with interest," he said.
University of North Florida Professor David Jaffee of the Northeast Florida Center for Community Initiatives questioned the wisdom of investing hundreds of millions of dollars on the project. He believes before the project is finished, it could cost taxpayers $1 billion.
"Given the estimated dollar cost of the St. Johns River deepening/dredging, along with the anticipated environmental impact on a watershed that is already struggling to regain its health, there should be a clear and unambiguous net gain to not just the ships, carriers and logistic firms to the larger community," Jaffee wrote in a September report, "JaxPort As an Urban Growth Strategy: Community Implications
JaxPort will be in competition with ports in New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland, which already have harbors that handle larger ships. Miami and Savannah also have projects in the works to deepen their harbors, part of $15 billion in infrastructure upgrades over the next 10 years, Jaffee said his report.
"There is nothing sacred about Jacksonville as a destination," Jaffee said, adding that shippers want the cheapest and fastest way from the ships to their customers.
Jaffee also questioned the effect dredging will have on job creation and the current rosy picture touted by JaxPort, which says, "65,000 jobs in Northeast Florida are related to port activity." Of the jobs currently listed by JaxPort, fewer than than 9,000 jobs, or 13.8 percent, are "direct jobs" that deal with cargo handling and vessel services.
Another issue that isn't being discussed is the depth of the dredging. If the Jacksonville channel is dredged to 47 feet, it still won't be able to handle ships that need 50 feet of depth, Jaffee said in a telephone interview. That is the size of the proposed ships being designed to transit the renovated Panama Canal.
"There is no guarantee that if we dredge it, they will come," Rinaman said.
Mayor Alvin Brown, while praising the port as the city's economic engine, said he wasn't inclined to spend additional tax dollars on the project.
"We support continuing the improvement and expansion of JaxPort and the channel to keep building momentum on the economic growth and recovery occurring in Jacksonville," the mayor said in a statement to Folio Weekly.
"With the cost estimate just recently announced, we would discuss any private partnership opportunities with JaxPort, the independent authority that will oversee any of the dredging project."
Brown is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Task Force on Metro Exports and Ports. He has pressed federal officials to act on funding available to improve ports.
Right now, the mayor said, he is focused on improving Mile Point, a dangerous area where the St. Johns River and Intracoastal Waterway meet. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature committed $35 million to fix Mile Point.
Another important factor of the dredging is the environmental impact and the mitigation proposed for the project.
Among the concerns raised by environmentalists and the public are an increase in salinity within the St. Johns, shoreline erosion, confined underwater blasting, and increased impacts to the endangered northern right whale and other endangered species, including the manatee, wood stork, several turtle species, the short-nosed sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon and smalltooth sawfish.
The salinity issue is a huge one. A small increase in salt levels can have a detrimental affect on vegetation and on fish, shrimp and crab nurseries.
"We are already seeing signs of stress on cypress trees," Rinaman. said
A large part of her focus is the mitigation plan, which is designed to review things that can be done to make up for the damage from the dredging.
"Our preliminary review shows it does not provide a net benefit to the river," Rinaman said.
In some discussions with the Corps of Engineers, Rinaman suggested removing the Rodman Reservoir near Palatka would be good mitigation for the dredging. After considering the idea, the Corps rejected it. She believes the proposal still has merit.
"Although there would likely be environmental benefits from the restoration of the Ocklawaha River and associated wetlands in this area, there is considerable controversy regarding the dam that is unresolved and could substantially delay implementation of the feature in any mitigation plan," the Corps wrote.
Ed Taylor, president of Save Rodman Reservoir Inc., has been fighting to retain the dam on Lake Ocklawaha, one of the state's best bass fishing lakes. Taylor said he also had enlisted the support of state Sen. John Thrasher, who pledged his support of the lake, which covers parts of Putnam and Marion counties.
"The Army Corps of Engineers has already backed off because they know the controversy would surface again," Taylor wrote in an email. "So they have removed the word Rodman from their study and said they have no plans of entertaining the idea of taking the dam down."
The Rodman was built as part of the ill-fated Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was designed to use the St. Johns River to connect to other rivers to move barge traffic across the state. Construction began in 1964, but was halted in 1971 after environmental concerns stopped it.
Rinaman does not favor mitigations such as buying conservation land or bank credits.
"We want to see the kind of mitigation that improves the St. Johns and its tributaries," Rinaman said.